Monday, May 16, 2005
Could she get death sentence?
Andrea Petrosky, a former Roanoker, is charged with capital murder and faces the death penalty in the April strangling and drowning of her son, Garrett, 6.
By many accounts, Andrea Petrosky had everything going her way.
Creative and highly organized, she balanced active involvement in her children's school activities with a full-time job at an upscale clothing and home accessory store, even as she worked toward a degree in educational technology at Radford University. Outgoing and energetic, she earned both the professional and personal admiration of friends and peers during the years her family lived in Roanoke.
Now, police in Bristol, Va., say that on April 15, Petrosky drowned her 6-year-old son in a bathtub after strangling him, then called police and confessed. The 38-year-old mother of two is being held without bond in Bristol City Jail, charged with capital murder and facing the death penalty.
Her case moves Virginia into relatively uncharted legal territory. She's only the third person in the state to be charged under a statute that makes the killing of a child under 14 by a person over 21 a capital offense. The previous two cases involved multiple murders. Both of the accused were men, and both have been executed.
Death penalty experts say that based on precedent, the odds are against Petrosky's receiving the death penalty if the case continues forward as is, and some question whether seeking the ultimate penalty is justified in a case like hers. Much depends on the cause behind the slaying - something friends who knew Petrosky say they couldn't even begin to guess.
"She was a wonderful person who loved her children and loved her husband and worked hard," said Martha Hughes, who worked with Petrosky on Patrick Henry High School's After Prom gatherings. "I love Andrea. I don't know what happened.
"Nobody knows but her."
The photo on the back of the funeral program shows a jubilant boy wearing Blues Brothers-style sunglasses, plaid shorts and giant inflatable sneakers, pretending to play an inflatable guitar. The caption below the photo reads "Goofy" in huge letters.
Garrett Petrosky attended Salem Montessori School before his family moved from Roanoke to Bristol last year. Hughes, the pool manager at the Elks Club in Southwest Roanoke, remembers Garrett and his father, Tim Petrosky, coming in frequently to swim, something the boy loved.
"He was just normal, a normal kid," Hughes said.
Garrett loved bugs and spiders. Hughes recalled Andrea Petrosky once asking her where she could find toy spiders for Garrett's birthday party. Petrosky knew about Hughes' penchant for Halloween decoration.
When the two worked together on Patrick Henry's After Prom, Petrosky would find ways to involve students, such as having them make masks to go with a Mardi Gras theme. The Petroskys' oldest daughter, Danielle, attended Patrick Henry and was popular with her peers.
"Anything that came up with Danielle," her mother "was always very involved," Hughes said, including arranging a special dinner at the Elks Club for Danielle, her friends and their dates before her senior prom.
Employed at Present Thyme on 23rd Street near Towers Shopping Center,, Andrea Petrosky was a fixture there for years, as admired for her home decorating ideas as she was for her prom party skills. Her husband worked as a pharmacist at Brambleton Drug and had a reputation for friendly professionalism.
"Tim would help anybody in any way that he could help them," said Mark Huth, a Brambleton Drug pharmacist who was hired at the same time as Petrosky and worked side by side with him there and at the Kmart pharmacy on Franklin Road. There was nothing unusual about the Petroskys, Huth said. "The Petrosky family was a family that you would welcome into your neighborhood and into your own home."
Which is why Garrett's death and the charge against Andrea Petrosky leave friends and former co-workers baffled and shaken.
'They weren't recluses'
The Petroskys lived on Stanley Avenue in South Roanoke until the spring of 2004, when they moved to Bristol to be closer to family.
In Bristol, too, the child's death left residents disturbed. The Rev. David Stancil, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bristol, recalled how, soon after the tragedy, a mother with young children in his congregation came to speak to him. "She was upset because her son had asked her, 'Mommy, are you going to kill me too?'"
Stancil held a counseling session at his church, and he advised about 30 who came not to be judgmental.
"It was not like this was a weird family. You just didn't have any way to say, 'Well, I'm not like them,'" he said. "Lots of people knew them closely and well and were involved with them. They weren't recluses."
Several Roanokers who knew the Petroskys declined to speak about them for this story. Not surprising, said Yvonne Downes, a professor of criminal justice at Hilbert College in New York. "That's partly because she's also a white middle-class woman from a good family. Nobody can be comfortable with a case like this."
Women are seen as nicer and more nurturing than men, so when women commit violent crimes, they tend to be regarded with more horror than when men commit the same acts, she said.
Downes, who specializes in studying women and violent crime, said Petrosky's circumstances reminded her of Andrea Yates, a Texas woman who in 2001 drowned her five children in a bathtub. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against Yates, who instead received life in prison.
"She was another supermom. She seemed to feel a need to be perfect and do everything all the time," Downes said. "Women who have it all, seem to be doing it all, I believe, are at a high risk for depression."
If Petrosky were to be diagnosed with depression or some other disorder, it would likely become a factor in the case, as it did in the Yates case, Downes said.
Bristol Commonwealth's Attorney Jerry Wolfe declined to comment as to whether authorities know a possible motive for the slaying.
David Dow, a death penalty opponent who founded the Texas Innocence Project, noted that neither Yates nor Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two sons in a car in 1994, received the death penalty. Juries tend to accept the notion that when mothers kill their children, and there's no scheme of financial gain involved, "They're doing it basically because they're mentally disturbed," Dow said.
Petrosky is only the third person in Virginia to be prosecuted under a relatively new capital murder statute, informally known as "Annie's Law," that makes it a capital crime for a person 21 or older to kill a child younger than 14. The law's creation was spurred by the 1997 death of 4-year-old Annie Leftwich, who was bound and gagged as a punishment for bed-wetting and suffocated.
It's increasingly common for death penalty states to have statutes similar to Annie's Law, but they're more commonly applied to fathers or to strangers who abduct children, Dow said. The two previous cases in Virginia prosecuted under Annie's Law involved fathers who killed their children.
Dow said that seeking the death penalty against a mother who kills her children has a lower-than-average success rate among capital cases. It's not the type of situation lawmakers have in mind when creating this sort of law, he said.
"That's the problem with laws that are a response to a single case," said Steve Milani, director of the Capital Defender Office for the western region of Virginia, who will head Petrosky's defense team. He said he believes Annie's Law is unconstitutional because it creates a class of adults from ages 18 to 20 who can't be charged with capital murder if they kill a child. He compared it to a law that would make everyone death penalty eligible for killing a child unless they're Spanish.
New York Law School professor Robert Blecker, a death penalty supporter, said that based on the known facts in the Petrosky case, the death penalty doesn't seem warranted. "This isn't in the same moral universe" as people who maintain torture chambers or are serial rapist-murderers.
"It's very important that death penalty supporters are sensitive to moral distinctions and reserve this most serious and solemn response for the most heinous and horrible killers - not just killings, but killers - because by it, we condemn not only what you've done but who you are," he said. "We say that as a person you deserve to die."
For Wolfe, seeking the death penalty in the case is a matter of law. "It clearly falls within the parameters of what the General Assembly has stated in the code as being a capital case."
"My prediction is that no jury will go for it," Blecker said.
A preliminary hearing in the case once scheduled for Thursday has been postponed.
Virginia hasn't executed a woman since 1912, though a Pittsylvania County woman, Teresa Lewis, received a death sentence in 2003 for hiring two men to kill her husband and stepson so she could collect insurance money. She is the first woman on death row in Virginia since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1976.